Overseas GPs are dealing with their own Windrush scandal
Overseas doctors who have dedicated their lives to the NHS have been treated scandalously by a discriminatory immigration system, says Dr Kamal Sidhu
The issue of racism against BME doctors in NHS is always termed ‘complex’ despite various debates, conferences and reviews run by organisations such as the BMA and the GMC. The statistics on differential progression and attainment clearly show no improvement.
The political discourse coming right from the very top of the Government has shifted significantly towards a populist anti-immigrant rhetoric in recent years. It is shocking that the Prime Minister blocked clearance of visa for hundreds of doctors in the face of severe staff shortages, against pleas from the health secretary.
The same Prime Minister undermined the role of foreign doctors by suggesting they are only needed for an interim period. A freedom of information request revealed that in the first quarter of 2018 itself, more than 1,500, or 25%, of the 6,080 eligible applications refused by the Home Office were for doctor roles.
When the atmosphere is so toxic, is it really possible to have a frank, honest and fruitful debate about inequality?
I had my bags packed and even stopped buying regular groceries
The issue of discrimination starts during the immigration process even before doctors make it into the country. A system similar to the scandalous policy against Windrush immigrants has been applied to the overseas medical workforce, and many other groups of skilled migrants.
In 2006, the home office made changes to visa rules retrospectively, which meant that highly skilled migrants already working in the UK faced the resident labour test and were required to apply for a work permit.
That decision was subsequently challenged successfully by the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin amongst others. Michael Fordham QC stated in court that the changes had been made without warning and described them as unlawful, unreasonable and unfair.
But some doctors did leave the UK and the country suffered a serious blow to its credibility within the global medical workforce. If the court had not intervened, many more would have been forced to leave the country, with their families uprooted.
Many of us personally endured the dictatorial and discriminatory attitude of the Home Office during this period. My own application to extend my visa was rejected on the grounds that my medical university was not recognised, despite having graduated from a very reputable medical school, and a fellow graduate having been granted a visa extension only months before. I had no option other than to apply for the work permit and wait longer to secure the right to stay in the UK.
I had my bags packed and even stopped buying regular groceries, in case our application was rejected again. Similarly, one of my peers who had devoted more than a decade to the NHS had his application rejected on trivial grounds.
I am certain that there are hundreds more such cases out there. The distress our families have had to go through has never been acknowledged by the Government, which has only recognised mistakes that have eventually been exposed.
BME doctors who have made the UK their home, contributing immensely to the health system and society, continue to be torn apart from their families, in some cases, their elderly parents. I can only apply for my elderly parents to come to stay with me when they are really old, or when only one of them is left in this world. Is this humane from anyone’s perspective?
One wonders if India and the other countries who trained people like me should charge a royalty fee for the thousands of doctors the UK has benefited from, but UK taxpayers never paid for. How might the Migration Advisory Committee respond to this?
The relationship should be based on mutual respect, and not dictated to by tabloids. After watching the recent Royal wedding, should I be hopeful for a more tolerant society where my children are assured of equal opportunities in genuine terms?
I am not sure. After the Windrush scandal, I really wonder whether I made the right decision to come to the UK.
Dr Kamal Sidhu is a GP trainer in County Durham